Timothy Sowicz, GNu’09, Gr’16, isn’t sure what exactly led him to the nursing profession, but that’s the track the Philadelphia native chose to pursue as an undergraduate student at Bloomsburg University. For his master’s studies, he chose Penn Nursing for its reputation and convenience.
“At the time, I was working at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and I needed to work full-time and take classes on a part-time basis,” says Sowicz. “When I started in 2007, I had been a staff nurse for six years and was looking for an opportunity to expand my clinical skills in an advanced practice role. The family nurse practitioner program was ideal. It allowed me to continue to interact with patients and their families.”
Sowicz had always planned to pursue a PhD. After working for two years as a nurse practitioner, he felt compelled to find answers to important clinical questions. Having now completed Penn Nursing’s PhD program, Sowicz has accepted a post-doctoral position at VA Pittsburgh’s Interdisciplinary Program for Addiction Education and Research (VIPER). This role will position Sowicz to teach in a research-intensive academic environment and allow him to build upon his dissertation research, which was grounded in his own practice experience.
While completing his PhD, Sowicz worked one day a week as a nurse practitioner at a federally qualified health center in Delaware, where he provided quality care to individuals, families and communities that have traditionally had less access to healthcare. His transition from working in acute care settings to the community primary care setting was enlightening.
“Penn Nursing prepared me, exceptionally, to manage acute and chronic medical concerns and conditions. But I quickly realized that patients’ social needs often required prioritization,” he explains.
Sowicz developed an interest in sexual health because of its great importance to his patients at the health center.
“They may have had uncontrolled diabetes and hypertension, but the minute they were concerned about something that may impact their sexual lives, they were very interested in having it evaluated,” he says.
His research interest in biomedical interventions, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) to prevent
HIV infection, stems from a broader interest in how healthcare providers talk to patients about aspects of sexuality and how they use that information to help patients prevent unwanted outcomes.
“This was my broad research question for my dissertation research,” Sowicz explains. “I spent several months observing medical visits between patients and providers in a federally qualified health center to learn more about the contextual factors that contribute to, or hinder, discussions about aspects of sexuality. I found that the providers never broached this, which did not surprise me. But many of these patients are homeless or housing-insecure and have opioid dependence, so they may have increased risk of experiencing unwanted sexual health outcomes.”
Sowicz remains grateful to many of the faculty at Penn Nursing who served as insightful advisors and as steadfast mentors, not only for his research, but also for his future career plans.
“I think students’ relationships with the faculty at Penn Nursing are vital to their success in the PhD program,” says Sowicz. “I always felt more like a colleague than an underling.”
As he begins his dream career as an academic researcher, Sowicz remains excited for the potential impact of his research on the patients he seeks to serve.
“Ultimately, I hope my work will lend support for the concept of patient-centered care; not just theoretically, but in actual practice,” he explains. “Providers sometimes have an idea of what they want to accomplish with a patient during a 15-minute visit, and often this isn’t congruent with what the patient needs or wants. I also hope that my work informs providers’ understanding of the need to help co-create a patient-provider interaction that is truly non-judgmental; a space where patients feel safe and encouraged to ask for what they want and need.”
“At times it takes some creativity to provide care to people who have limited financial and social support. I feel privileged when I can help people feel better, connect them to community resources or just be there to listen to them.”